An admission: I was reluctant to write about my time in Siberia. My words aren’t good enough to encompass the experience. I’m more accustomed to internal drama, to melancholy; I have those words. But this project in its shimmering, impossibly stress free gauze—it is beyond me.
An admission: It is slipping away. Though glittering flecks of it all stubbornly remain latched on to my behaviors, gradually I shed them off. I can’t help it. That’s life. Ordinary days take over again; I have things to do; I should focus on the now, anyway. But I still reach behind. Ah, there’s the melancholy.
It didn’t exactly look promising, but I already knew it would be just fine. The electrichka train doors slammed shut, with half of us still attempting to stumble down the steep stairs onto the gravel embankment of the stop. Shouts! They let us off into the drizzle, soon to be rain.
But I knew it would be just fine. See, on the electrichka, our very dear, ever positive, sweet, wonderful translator Anya immediately rounded us up for some games. Take as many pieces of toilet paper as you’ll use today! Haha, you now must say that many facts about yourself! As we went round introducing ourselves, I was mostly filled with a blooming curiosity. Even the obligatory drunk didn’t bother me. “Anya! Anya!” Slava wanted to play, too. After the games were done, he treated us to an operatic tune, a capella. Lauren, in Russia for the first time, sat by him, shaking with laughter. Welcome to rural Russia, where the friendly drunks serenade you. It’s not an anomaly. It’s an acceptable fact of life.
Another Russian guy providing Lauren with entertainment.
The rain methodically pattered down. We soldiered through the muddy path, winding our way around large puddle after another. Despite the chill I began to sweat under my raincoat — why are they so stuffy? — and my legs tired from carrying the extra weight of my backpack. But already the songs began pressing themselves out of our mouths and I found myself joining in, belting out a Russian song I didn’t at all know. Molotsi, molotsi.
We crossed a bog, squelching abundantly. Later we would solve the problem of this muddy crossing by building a trail over it. And then, after clambering around a rock face, clumsy with our packs—there was our camp. We dumped our belongings in the two yurts on site, spreading things out to dry, lighting fires in the stoves. And now, for more games! Under a slightly leaky shelter, the roof beating a rhythm of raindrops, we learned shaman chants, tangled ourselves up, and played this is what I like about you/this is what I hate about you, oh but now you have to kiss/bite those parts, surprise! All of this tumbled by in an interesting Russian-English mishmash. And somehow, these bizarre activities, among adults no less, were entirely natural and fun.
It was raining too hard to set up our tents, let alone our campfire, so it was inside eating for just the beginning. All eighteen of us— five Americans, the rest Russians — crammed into the small kitchen, around the smaller table. Already quite close, we chowed down on what would be staples: soup, macaroni, bread, (too much) candy. And, in the darkening room, sang some more.
I didn’t quite know if would be just fine that night, though, entering the yurt. Which leaked. Nine of us crammed in and the fire blazed. I lay on top of my new, already precious sleeping bag, and realized that even if I protected it from the ceiling drips, it would get my sweat all over it anyway. Well.
Early the next day the wonders really began. Anxious to be out of the sweltering yurt, I woke early and went out with Elizabeth who was on duty to prepare food for the day. I dressed for rain, for I could still hear water outside the yurt, but peering through the door, I realized my mistake. The only precipitation in the air was mist; what I heard was the roaring, lovely river we were situated by.
This day, our project duties truly began. We were able to set up our tents, which I had longed for very much over the course of the muggy night. And we began work: first, gathering firewood and hauling it back to camp. Natasha, our tough and great leader, cleared the way with her beloved chainsaw, creating the beginnings of a path we would soon build. And we, trailing behind, clambered through the squishy moss, gathering as many branches as our arms could bear and, muddying our raincoats, hugged them to our chests as we tramped back to our blossoming camp.
It was certainly going to be just fine! After obyed, late lunch, we girls started off some more goofiness. What does a horse say in Russian? Iiiii go-go! I kid you not. My torso ached more from laughing than from lugging branches around. After awhile, we switched to learning potentially more productive things, making Russian-English drawings for the parts of trees and types of flora and fauna around.
And then for our hike, since I suppose we were easing into our working days—normally, we would work both morning and afternoon. But it was good to see the sites we were supporting with our trail building, namely, the shapely cliffs of the Olkhinskoye Plateau. I lagged behind the others, eagerly taking photos of birch trees. There’s something about northern forests — the moss, the pines, and of course the birches— not too imposing but elegant enough, that’s very comforting.
We reached one of the cliffs, Idol, and scrambled around, taking photos of each other, all together. Then we headed for another rocky outcrop, where we were able to stare down a cliff over the sea of greenery below. Siberia! Our sense of adventure was piqued, for when we turned around and walked back by Idol, a brave handful of us clambered up a rock face (I needed help getting down; it wasn’t the easiest) and faced Idol from a new, dizzying height. Again, the green stretched out under us. This vast earth. Siberia.
Others collected mushrooms while I only collected blisters, unperturbed, it was certainly going to be just fine. That night we had mushroom soup. Our instigator of silly activities, Anya, had enlisted Rachele and I to perform some songs, and perform we did. For two weeks, I belted out tunes without a care. By the way, I’m not a great singer.
To top it off, we got to use the banya that evening. It wasn’t until midnight, under the overwhelmingly starry Siberian sky, that I zipped myself into my sleeping bag. This was only the first full day on project coming to a close. There was more mud and joy yet to sink into.
An admission: Volunteering with Great Baikal Trail was, honestly, probably one of the better things I’ve done. By the end of the second day I had written in my journal, I love this. The following sentences in my journal: There are so many good people and the nature is wonderful and I just feel pretty carefree and not anxious. Like whatever is fine, and I’m thinking about now, not the future.
An admission: Now, I am thinking about the future. I am thinking about going back.